In This Review

The Construction of Memory in Interwar France
The Construction of Memory in Interwar France
By Daniel J. Sherman
University of Chicago Press, 2000, 448 pp.

Intelligent cultural history can throw much light on the mentality and politics of a nation. This superb, exhaustive volume makes vivid World War I's aftershocks in France. Sherman starts by reviewing the choices that the French faced in commemorating their 1.5 million war dead: whether the soldiers should remain buried near the battlefields in huge ossuaries or be returned to their towns and villages; what kind of monuments should be built; and how extensive the state's role should be in the affairs of its citizens. As Sherman points out, monuments became a stake in the contest for influence between national and local governments, between secular and religious forces, and even between political camps. He also shows that commemoration ceremonies were doubly conservative in that they confirmed traditional views about gender and perpetuated the image of France as a predominantly rural country. Anguish over France's demographic crisis and remembrance of the heroic war years covered France with monuments that were often banal, and the narrative of national unity that had prevailed in the 1920s dissolved in the 1930s. Today, Sherman writes, the drama of World War I has moved from memorials honoring the dead to "historials" documenting a story -- and focusing on the individual more than on the citizen as patriot.